The Nickel Boys

In THE NICKEL BOYS, Colson Whitehead wields all the majesty and mastery he displayed in THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD–the power of vision that lets him hold in the same frame, in perfect balance, extremes of both violence and tenderness–but trains all of these elements with a more intimate focus. It’s the story of two boys and the birth and death and rebirth of their dreams; and it’s the story of hope and hopelessness, married forever, survival and its cost in an unjust world. A perfect, essential novel.

Loss Adjustment

LOSS ADJUSTMENT by Linda Collins. I simultaneously knew I had to read this, and also put it off for months. The book sets out the reflections of a Kiwi expat in Singapore, whose daughter ended her own life, aged 17, leaving behind distraught parents and luminously written teenage journals.

A book which would move anyone, I think, but which presents a particularly terrifying journey for a parent. I wept more or less continuously for the first third, and then later every few pages. Creating this was an extraordinary and generous act of observation. Details catalogued with knife-sharp lucidity, each one exposing another facet of pain. Read it.

Interview with Centre for Stories

I have an author interview up at Centre for Stories: on early reading and writing, my fiction to date and work to come. I realise this is probably also the first place I’ve mentioned publicly that I’ve signed a contract for a children’s picture book. It should be out next year; watch this space for details!

Reading for me was very private, the most real of realities but impossible to truly discuss with people around me…

Internment by Samira Ahmed

Today, the two biggest world powers openly run racist concentration camps. So I was in two minds when, browsing the public library shelves, I stumbled on INTERNMENT by Samira Ahmed, a YA novel set in a near-future United States which begins detaining Muslim citizens in internment camps. The story of a teenage girl fomenting dissent within the first camp, the book seemed on one level attractive (children/young people need human stories to understand such matters, and they need exemplars of action and hope); and yet also almost inevitably inappropriate.

Is it in the power of fictional dramatisation to do justice to the peoples wronged by such camps, past, present and potential? Should it be attempted, and if so, how? To be sure, I love—I have been immeasurably enriched by—many works that seek to engage the horrors of fascism. But even with the most sensitive and accomplished creations, one reckons with the ethical question of fashioning beauty from blood—the risk of artistic vampirism.

What more when a book strives to hew, as INTERNMENT does, to contemporary YA conventions? A pacy and satisfying plot, depicting individual triumph, in a world of cruelties that are real and meaningful, but nevertheless defeasible. What if this form simply cannot contain this subject without becoming insulting, distended? What if this kind of human evil is just too much?

Reading the book only heightened my ambivalence. Samira Ahmed renders the sparky, witty and energetic Layla Amin and her family with liveliness and grace. Early scenes are particularly good at conveying the terror and disorientation of their initial displacement, and an important thread running through the book traces the bonds of friendship and solidarity built by Layla with fellow internees, as well as with a camp guard of complicated allegiances. What can and must we risk of ourselves—and others—in projects of political resistance? What might we sacrifice when we speak? What when we are silent? Faced with injustice, where are the various places we might stand on the spectrum from treacherous complicity to passive acquiescence to outright resistance?

These questions are repeatedly probed as Layla ignites rebellion, while standing together with others inside and outside the camp, including her biracial Jewish boyfriend and (in an unduly flattering fictional portrayal) Anonymous. While she ultimately succeeds in bringing down the camp, in a stirring portrait of the power of popular protest, we can never forget that this victory (or perhaps it’s better thought of as a reprieve) comes, like all progress, at a heavy cost.

It is an important message, and yet. I find myself vaguely dissatisfied on counts that range from relatively superficial to more serious, but which all connect up, perhaps, to the difficulty of the subject matter. How bad should the material conditions be in a fictional internment camp? How brutal the treatment? There is a very tricky calculus in thinking about what is reflective of history and reality without descending into some sort of horrible demand for dehumanising “authenticity”. Certainly Samira Ahmed does not take this issue lightly. Layla is a well-read teenager and makes her own clear-eyed acknowledgement of the WWII precedents (the Japanese-American internment camps, the Nazi abominations). I found it impossible, nevertheless, not to find her camp implausibly humane, next to the contemporary examples of migrant children in the US or detainees in Manus Island—and also to be unhappy at myself for harbouring such an absurd standard.

There is a parallel difficulty in the question of how this evil might be defeated. Layla and her fellow internees attain their freedom through the evergreen action movie device of media exposure, prompting popular outrage and protest. I am not sure how to respond to this narrative ploy. Perhaps it is increasingly unconvincing in the face of open, brazen commission of atrocity. Knowing has not closed the camps that exist. Yet sunlight is a tool that democrats (in which I include myself) still cling to, a hope we still indulge. To find it weak when presented in story form is to doubt oneself as much as the story. I also can’t help but feel some political cultural distance in considering the ready risk-taking of Layla’s comrades: perhaps such a thing makes more sense in the United States.

A final few gripes about comparatively minor points. One, why is the Director so persistently reduced to cartoonish elements of physical distastefulness (spit, bulging veins, whiskey breath), and indeed incompetence? Can’t his villainy in running such a place speak for itself? This seemed heavy-handed. Two, I had strong reservations about the clear subtext of romantic tension between Layla and Jake, turncoat prison guard. His heroism alone mildly strains the reader’s credulity, but it is perhaps on balance acceptable in the interests of plot. To further assign him a crush on Layla felt like a rather inappropriate importation from YA love triangle land. Jake’s own explicit acknowledgement that such a relationship would be inherently coercive feels a little too much like lip service next to all the scenes of sentimental devotion.

Lest I be misunderstood: if I have spilled a lot of words on criticism here, it is largely because the project of this book is ambitious and the product reflects real thought and craft, and is well worth engaging with, even if I’m left very much not knowing what to think.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters

I absolutely devoured THE UNLIKELY ADVENTURES OF THE SHERGILL SISTERS. Of course Balli Kaur Jaswal has always been a damned fine writer, but this is simply a masterwork. Imagine the most supremely elegant juggling act, in which a dazzling palette of scenes and a four-course meal’s worth of emotional flavours and exquisite comedic notes all make intricate sweeps past one another and then fall back into her hands, one, two, three, with perfect timing and unerring control. You will gasp and nod and laugh and learn; you will exhale and then realise you’d been holding your breath and–is that a tear? Surely not, when it’s been so much fun? p.s. in case you couldn’t tell, I loved it.

They Told Us To Move

Last night I finished reading THEY TOLD US TO MOVE, edited by Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team. What a fabulous volume, ranging over so many different registers, scales and subjects–illuminating so much about connection, history, poverty and space. I particularly enjoyed Neo Yu Wei’s essay “Reclaiming the community spirit in the iron cage”, but really, all of it is essential Singapore reading. My brain feels shifted.

Amal Unbound

In AMAL UNBOUND by Aisha Saeed, an academic young girl dreams of becoming a teacher, but is forced into indentured servitude for the wealthy loanshark family which dominates her small Pakistani village.* Heavy stuff for a children’s book, perhaps, but the difficulty of reading it is almost entirely emotional, as broader issues are made vividly concrete: local power dynamics come alive in a tussle over a pomegranate, sophisticated dissonances echo in the division of chores. The inner voice of Amal, her web of familial and neighbourly intimacies, and a strong flavour of village and estate life, are all rendered with remarkable economy. The book insists–to a rather impressive degree–on nuance and humility. If it falters anywhere, it is perhaps that I at least found it hard to be quite as convinced by the hopeful resolution of the book as by the bleakness of the realities it conveys. I also felt that certain narrative threads got a little lost along the way–were the early scenes with Omar, or even Amal’s mother’s post-natal funk, perhaps, destined to go somewhere else? But overall, a powerful volume well worth the time to introduce to children–and while the experiences depicted do not map exactly onto those of live-in domestic workers in Singapore, there are significant parallels which give the book some additional relevance here.

*I see Elena Ferrante in everything now, of course, but the Khans very much put me in mind of the Carraccis and the Solaras; and both Amal’s bookishness and moments of defiance were likewise slightly reminiscent of Lenù and Lila.